The Intimacy of Relapse

By Nathan A Thompson 02/04/15

Even though life is better in so many intricate and beautiful ways, sometimes I’d love to relapse.


It’s been over two years since I filled my lungs with heroin smoke, or watched blood blob from a withdrawn syringe. It’s been four years since my last major addiction with its grinding, gut-punched withdrawal. But, even though life is better in so many intricate and beautiful ways, sometimes I’d love to relapse. I’d love to collapse like an exhausted marathon runner into the arms of the drug that gave me comfort when nothing else could.

But, I remain clean. Living my changed life. Pick a cliché – I’m the selfish giant who tore down the wall of his castle to let the children play, the ugly duckling, the caterpillar turned into a butterfly. But what happens when the butterfly hankers after the leaf-munching life of a caterpillar? Or when the swan wishes to be ugly again? Transformation narratives rarely fit the reality of addiction. Indeed, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) pegs the rate of relapse at 60%. 

Back when I agreed to enter rehab and heard my auntie sobbing with relief, I thought it would cure me for good. This theory was soon made to bite on the first of AA’s 12 steps and brutally stamped on. I was instructed that addiction was a disease and I was powerless over it. I struggled to cope with this information. Even after seven weeks, I still couldn’t see how wanting to take drugs was a disease. My counselor threw his hands up in exasperation, pulled open a drawer and thrust a worksheet in front of me entitled, “The Conception of Addiction as an Illness.” 

The idea of addiction as a disease is intuitively difficult. Perhaps, a bin bag junkie or a pickled alcoholic bares something of a resemblance to a cancer patient, but what about corporate cocaine lovers? The bottle-a-day soccer moms? Are they suffering from a disease in the same way a diabetic does?  

In fact the “disease model” of addiction is one of a handful of ways to understand the phenomenon. Other models favor genetic, adaptive or psychodynamic explanations. None are fully accurate and while neuroscientists can point to a blurry MRI scan as proof that an addict’s brain is abnormal, we still don’t really understand what addiction is. 

A decent explanation can be found in Memoirs of an Addicted Brain by Dr Marc D. Lewis. He describes the synaptic pathways of the brain as being similar to ivy on a wall. For the dope fiend, the wall is no longer visible beneath a flourishing ivy of addictive ideas, behaviors and habits. There is no room in his mind for anything else. Even a single drug-free thought. 

Over years spent in recovery, my addiction has been cut back, trimmed and poisoned at the root. But a damaged brain is not a simple thing to repair. On a good day, all that remain are sun-dried tendrils spread like veins across the stone. But, at other times, a third of the wall can be heavy with green leaves. 

The worst was in the months that followed rehab. Trying to learn how to live again. Dragging on a cigarette in a windy carpark watching people arrive for the AA or NA meeting. Those with long-term sobriety would park their shiny cars, stride inside and remove pricey jackets. Sitting on plastic chairs, they shared how they had a career, their own homes and were attentive parents.  

Those members who had made it three, five or twelve years without taking drugs were beacons of hope for the bombed-out newbies. Their example kept me going to meetings, sipping cheap coffee and sitting through the interminable monologues of the recently sober. 

Yet, even among AA’s success stories there was relapse and rumours of relapse. You’d hear it whispered over pre-meeting cigarettes that so-and-so has started drinking after ten years sober. The next week it would be someone from a different group who had grasped the crack pipe after three years.  

Sometimes, it happens to a celebrity and the confusion and soul-searching happens throughout society. Take the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman last year. The Oscar-winning actor was found dead from a heroin overdose in his apartment after 20 years of sobriety. “And I know, deep down, I still look at the idea of drinking with the same ferocity that I did back then. It's still pretty tangible," Hoffman said in a 2011 interview with the Guardian.

Like Hoffman, there are days when the idea of taking heroin surfaces with such impact that I react with fear and trembling. It’s a shock because my life is great now. But that doesn’t make a difference. It’s counter-intuitive, but eudaemonia has no effect on the addictive desire for oblivion. That is why Hoffman’s death was a shock. It showed that long-term sobriety, success and wealth are no shelter.  

“It doesn’t matter that I was sat in that flat in Hackney [a deprived area of London] and now I’m in the Savoy. I’m jealous of me then [taking drugs],“ said Russell Brand, one of the world’s most successful comedians. Brand added, “It doesn’t make a difference to me. The money, the fame, the power, the sex, the women — none of it. I’d rather be a drug addict.”

It’s not just wealth and power that are rendered insignificant by relapse. Peaches Geldof, the celebrity daughter of Live Aid founder, Sir Bob Geldof was a new mum when she was found dead from a heroin overdose last year. She’d relapsed just weeks after writing in her column for a British women’s magazine: “I’m happier than ever… I’ve achieved a sort of perfect balance. Right now life is good. And being a mum is the best part of it.” 

What if I were to give in to the urges and overdose—would people be similarly baffled? Sure, I don’t share the top echelons with Brand, Hoffman and Geldof, but my life today would be the envy of many. Would people be nonplussed, wondering how a man who had recovered from addiction and built a career, friends and a life full of exotic experiences could risk it all by returning to heroin? 

When I was young, my favorite daydream was that I could stop the world, open a magic door and step out of reality into a room. It was warm and silent in that special way that means you are perfectly alone. It contained one brown arm chair and a soft white carpet. The walls were full of shelves containing books that smelled of dry pages and home. In front of the arm chair was a big TV and a game console. No matter how long I stayed, everything was always the same when I returned.  

When I was older, I found that perfectly safe room at the bottom of a bag of heroin. By then, the need to feel safe had become a trench that ran through my psyche as deep and powerful as those at the bottom of the Atlantic. Perhaps, that is what drove my addiction. Today, on those days when I feel the currents run from that deep sunless place, I have the same daydream. Except now, instead of a game console, it’s a sheet of foil, lighter and a pile of fine brown powder.

It makes me mad. How much work do I need to do to make it go away? How many more hours sitting in lotus position practicing peace? How many deep, controlled breaths do I need to take, twisted and upside down on my yoga mat? How much more money do I have to pay therapists? I don’t ask for much, I just want to stop wanting to destroy my life. 

A counselor friend of mine told me about a client. He was a drug addict, but managed to quit. He got married, immigrated to Australia, had two children, started his own business, bought a house on the beach, and spent his weekends playing badminton with his family. But, he started using drugs again. When my friend asked him why, he replied, “I had it all, but I never felt happy.” 

Anhedonia – the condition of not being able to feel happy – is common among recovering drug addicts. Their mental pleasure centers have been squeezed and scraped dry like a lemon. Some never fully recover. Is this what happened to Hoffman and Geldof? Did they hide a secret inability to feel happiness? 

Others like Russell Brand, admit they still have a desire to take drugs, but choose not to. They seem to have regained the ability to derive satisfaction from ordinary life. Perhaps, it’s too much to expect the desire for drugs to be forever expunged, but recognizing a day well lived and celebrating that fact is a massive help.  

When the days become a struggle it’s easy to imagine that things will never improve, that this life of suffering isn’t worth the effort to stay clean. It’s then that my own mind becomes a scary place. The neon signs of the amygdala begin to glow and the reminiscences of the sweet, plastic scent of crack and long dozy walks home after scoring pervaded the air.  

Endeavoring to live the life you have dreamed is crucial at this point because it creates an identity independent from drugs. Indeed, it’s threatened by drugs. In a clever switch, the drive for self-preservation, which was once hijacked by a desperate need to avoid withdrawal, is now working to maintain what has been gained. The longer the time spent abiding in this new life the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to maintain a distance from the fireworks of habit. 

In those first days of rehab the hope was that one day I wouldn’t want to use drugs. And, most of the time I don’t. But, if people like Hoffman have taught us anything it’s that addiction can always return. So, I’ve stopped hankering after a cure. Instead, I appreciate the best things in life with the enthusiasm of a damned man set free. And when I want to relapse, I hold on to my new life and silently repeat, like a curative spell, “This too shall pass.”   

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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